Children and Screens held the #AskTheExperts webinar “Persuasive Technology” on Wednesday, October 7th, 2020 at 12:00pm EDT via Zoom. The webinar featured a discussion outlining the basic principles of persuasive design, an approach that uses insights from psychology and neuroscience to keep kids (and adults) online. Expert panelists explained why these tactics work and offered practical advice to parents hoping to mitigate their effects.


  • Yalda Uhls, MBA, PhD

    Founder and Executive Director; Author Center for Scholars & Storytellers University of California, Los Angeles; Media Moms and Digital Dads
  • Richard Freed, PhD

    Child and Adolescent Psychologist; Author Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age
  • Criscillia Benford, PhD

    Educator and Communications Consultant; Co-Author; Board Member Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust; Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood
  • Max Stossel

    Head of Education; Poet and Filmmaker Center for Humane Technology

[Dr. Pamela Hurst- Della Pietra]: Thank you for joining us for this week’s “Ask the Experts” workshop. I am Dr. Pamela Hurst Pietra, founder and president of Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, and the host of this popular series. Children and Screens is a leading convener, funder, and curator of scientific research and a public educator on the topic of digital media and child development. Today’s workshop will explore persuasive design, a set of techniques used by device makers and software engineers to manipulate behavior and keep your family online. Our esteemed panelists will describe how to identify these tactics and offer practical tips to help parents combat their effects. They have reviewed the questions you submitted and will answer as many as possible during and after their presentations. If you have additional questions during the workshop, please type them into the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen and indicate whether you would like to ask your question live on camera or prefer that the moderator read your question. I’m happy to share that we have more than 400 participants joining us today, so while we may not be able to answer all of your questions, we will address as many as time permits. We are recording today’s workshop and plan to upload a video to YouTube in the coming days. Tomorrow, you will receive a link to our YouTube channel where you will find videos from our past webinars as well. Now, I would like to introduce our moderator, Dr. Yalda T. Uhls. Dr. Uhls is a research scientist at UCLA and founder of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers. With over 15 years of senior executive experience in the entertainment industry, she is an expert in the creation of media content and the science of how media affects children. Welcome, Dr. Uhls.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Thank you so much. Sorry about the mute. I’m really grateful to be here, and thank you, Pamela, for that lovely introduction. I am here as a moderator. I’m actually not an expert on this topic. These people, Max, Richard, and Christila, are experts on this topic. My expertise, as Pamela shared, is that I study media as a child development researcher at UCLA. I used to be a movie executive who made content, and I’m a mom of two teens. So I’ve gone through the gamut with them. And as Pam said, I now run the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at UCLA, and I also wrote a book for parents called “Media Moms and Digital Dads: A Fact, Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age.” During the webinar, if you have any questions for the panelists, as already said, please put it in the Q&A box and include whether you’d like to ask your question live on camera or would prefer that I read it. I’m going to now introduce each panelist. They’re going to give a short presentation and answer a question, and then at the end, we’ll come back for Q&A and final thoughts. First, I’m going to introduce Max Stossel. Max is the Head of Education for the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of former tech insiders and CEOs dedicated to realigning technology with humanity’s best interest. Before joining CHT, Max was a media strategist with an extensive background in social media, spending more time learning the ins and outs of the Facebook algorithm than any human should. So Max is going to give us an overview of persuasive tech. I’m going to hand it over to Max.


[Max Stossel]: Hello, thank you for having me. Thank you, Yalda. Um, thank you all for being here. Um, I’ll share my screen in a moment as well. Um, yeah, over the past three or four years, I’ve spent… I’ve been giving talks to parents, teachers, students, mostly middle and high school students, about social media and how it’s impacting their lives and answering a lot of questions and having a lot of conversations. And I’m going to share a little bit of that with you today. I’m going to share my screen here. Share. Um, and so, I want to start because I’m going to get into some of the scary parts, but I do want to initially say, of course, technology is amazing. If you were to tell me or tell our ancestors 100 years ago that we could have face-to-face conversations across oceans, that I’m the guy who’s walking around on the street totally unaware of where to go without that blue dot that shows me where the heck everything is, and I’m happy to offload that part of my brain to technology. I have a flashlight, a stopwatch, calculator, and like the best camera ever in my pocket all at once. That’s absolutely amazing, and every song, all on this tiny little device in my pocket. How wonderful. Um, but somewhere along the way, there are some confusing elements that have started to take over some parts of our lives here as well. And I want to zoom out to Facebook, something not relevant for the kids at all these days, but to Facebook, where we see this… this thing that we’re very used to: Mark has tagged a photo of you. But if we zoom out, what are we saying here? We’re saying, “Hey, someone’s taking a picture of you and showing it to everybody you know and a whole bunch of people you don’t know. Do you want to see that photo?” You don’t have to look. You don’t have to look right now. Do you want to see that photo? It takes a tremendous amount of self-control to say no to this question, especially if you’re a teenager in a particularly vulnerable time of wanting to know how other people feel about us. And of course, it’s not just click that button. It’s spending the next 20 minutes because once we have your attention with persuasive technology, we’re so good at grabbing and holding it. But it’s not just notifications. Let’s say you say, “You know what? I’m not going to click any of these. I’m going to turn off all my notifications.” I saw that tip and I take it to heart. Um, then on… Oops, sorry. Then on things like Instagram, we have things that disappear after 24 hours, and stories is the same with Snapchat. So, it’s the same mechanism in our minds, but now if I haven’t logged on within the past 24 hours, I literally can’t see what that thing was. Someone took a picture of me and shared it with everybody I know and a whole bunch of people I don’t, and now I literally can’t see what that thing is. Those buttons mentioned in the story are not clickable, so it can be very hard to have healthy relationships with social media. And one of the reasons this stuff works in terms of persuasive technology is something in America that makes more money than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined, and that’s slot machines. And how is that possible when you only play with just a coin or a small amount of money at a time? And the answer is something called variable rewards where you push a button or you pull a lever, and sometimes you win. You get the flashy reward, you win some money, and sometimes you don’t. In animal studies, they find with monkeys, if it’s a variable reward schedule, they’ll just keep pushing the button for really crazy amounts of time. Um, and so much of our phones are designed like these slot machines. Every time we hit one of those little red icons, ooh, how many likes did I get? For a teenager, ooh, did that one person I really wanted to like my photo, did they like my photo? And sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t. On this sort of variable reward schedule. And it’s not just the red icons. Um, every sort of feed that we’re playing, if you think about the motion, we’re literally playing the slot machine. What am I going to get? What am I going to get? Adults, have you ever just, like, checked your email and then pulled down to refresh, like, three seconds later? It’s like, what are we doing there? We are playing that slot machine to see what I’m gonna get. Sometimes it makes me laugh, sometimes it inspires me or I learn something, sometimes maybe I’m turned on a little bit, and sometimes we get that internal reward and sometimes we don’t. Um, and so Snapchat has a feature here called streaks, uh, that is one that really seems to grab kids and be one of the big reasons that kids are using so much of Snapchat. And I feel like this video from my talks at schools really highlights the difference between what we will do and what we actually like doing. And I did not click the buttons. One second, resharing screen, clicking the share sound buttons. Okay, please. I don’t want your half hands. Give me whole hands if you have Snapchat. If you use Snapchat, give me your whole hands, please. Keep your hands high if you have some kind of streak going. Any streaks going? Keep your hands high if you like streaks. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t it wild that so many of us are doing something that we don’t actually like doing? And by this point in the presentation, you can probably guess that the people at Snapchat are not waking up in the morning and saying, “Huh, how can I create the most meaningful friendships and relationships between teenagers today?” Streaks are a really powerful tool at how getting us to come back and use the app every day. But something strange starts to happen, right? It starts to feel like, “Oh, if I don’t have the streaks going with this person, are we really friends? Or, ooh, if I don’t have streaks with enough people or the right people, am I popular? Am I socially doing okay in school?” It starts to feel like it has this very real impact on our lives, even though it was created by people who look like me in California, has nothing to do with our actual friendships. But it starts to feel very, very real. Um, I have a friend who works at a psychiatric hospital, and she talks about how when teenagers are checking in, they are terrified to give their phones away because they cannot end their streaks. It would be the end of the world for them to end their streaks. Um, and, you know, WhatsApp is just as easy to send messages back and forth. We don’t need to be entering into these environments, but it starts to feel like a very real measure of our friendships, and probably shouldn’t. Um, and actually, quickly, give me a show of hands. You’ve ever taken a picture of a wall or something ridiculous just to keep a streak going. Please, give me honesty. Give me honesty. What are we doing? What are we doing here? What are we doing? So, we didn’t get the camera zoom out on that last one, but mostly, I don’t want your half hands. Um, but so, it was most of them who have just taken a picture of something ridiculous to keep a streak going. Streaks are, “I send you a message, you send me one back,” and a little gamified number starts to come up on Snapchat, and it really starts to, for some reason, take over in terms of importance of how significant that number is. These numbers can be very powerful persuaders, and I really, I like that video because I think it very clearly shows with those hands as they all go down, if you ask if they like it, it shows that just because we’re using these things doesn’t necessarily mean that we actually feel good about using them. Um, and so, there’s controversy around this research here, but this is from Jean Twenge’s research of percentage of teens with highly depressive symptoms. And if we look around 2012, we see, especially among females, obviously a big leap here. Um, there’s a lot of back and forth here that I won’t get into the big details of, but a lot of Jonathan Haidt’s research is starting to really show that not for smartphones, but for social media, there seems to be a dangerous correlation between using social media, especially for 10 to 14-year-old girls, in terms of mental health impacts. And it’s definitely something that I’m seeing in my work as well. There are thousands. There’s someone named Colin Karchner who is a friend and a colleague who gets thousands and thousands of these messages from teenagers. I’m gonna read a couple because it’s easy to get lost in the stats and forget that these are real people. Um, from one teenager: “I started going through a depression when I was 11, maybe 12, all because of social media. I would look at these girls and compare for legit hours. I didn’t know what to do but cry and cry. I started to get suicidal. I’d show up to school and act like I’m all fine, even though it was the opposite. If I’m sad, people will get mad at me, and if I try to talk to people, I have no reason. When I got my phone, I thought it’d be fun to download TikTok, and now it’s ruined my life. I started feeling numb, being sad for so long.” Um, “Dear Colin, I’m a 13-year-old girl who’s given access to Instagram around the age of 11. Before I got it, I was very confident in my appearance because I saw all the beautiful models all over Instagram. Every few months, I noticed I had a bigger nose or ears that stuck out more, and it has gotten so bad to the point where I was using a skin tap to pin my ears to my head just so I could fit in. I’m definitely going to go off social media like you mentioned in your talk. I’m hoping it helps me become more confident.” Um, and so there are thousands of these, and a lot of them are related to body comparison. Some of them are related to bullying. There’s a lot of different factors. It would be very hard to get into the specifics with social media. Um, but I really have been finding in my work that parents who are delaying giving social media or just being very cautious about social media and their kids, especially young girls, seem to be very glad that they did. And so, TikTok right now seems to be the hit of the moment, best slot machine that one could ever design. Time goes away. You’re literally just scrolling and scrolling for hours and hours. And right now, you know, if you look into some of the comments I highlight here, this app never fails to remind me of how lonely and single I am every single day, with seventeen thousand… with one thousand seven hundred people sort of agreeing with that sentiment. Another comment here: “He can have all this. I don’t have someone to hug, just in these lonely times of quarantine.” I think, especially, I think TikTok is adding quite a number to the loneliness that a lot of teens are feeling. And so, what can we do? Um, about all of this right now, and I’m short on time, so I’ll go fast. Um, just lead by example. And it’s [ __ ] impossible to be a parent right now. This feels like… And you’re doing your best. Thank you for doing your best. You’re doing an awesome job. But doing your best, it is so hard to do this. Um, but leading by example is really… You know, the kids are gonna see what we do and not what we say. And sometimes it can be helpful to, hey, you’re on your screen all the time, Mom, Dad. Why can’t I be? Even conversations like, yeah, this is how I put food on our table, and it’s like, this is the type of thing that I’m doing on a screen, and that’s different from you scrolling on social media all day. Just having those sort of conversations and sharing what we’re doing on our screens, sharing that we’re going to try to put it down at these times, and sticking to those limits and guidelines ourselves is really helpful. Um, especially right now, when everything’s changing all the time and it’s really hard to figure anything out. Including your kids in the rule-making process, being flexible, seeing what’s working, what’s not working, what are we using it for, is a really helpful tool for a lot of parents right now. And I’m very big on, like, get rid of the toxicity. And it doesn’t mean we have to stop doing the thing that it offers us. What are we getting out of these social apps, and can we find the replacement for how we can do that so that we’re not doing it in these toxic environments? Delete TikTok, make the funny videos, and text them to people directly. Deleting Snapchat and using other messaging platforms. Deleting Instagram, or at least unfollowing all the people who make us feel badly about ourselves. And a helpful question, not, “Hey, do you like TikTok? Do you like Snapchat?” How does TikTok make you feel? How does Snapchat make you feel? How does Instagram make you feel, both during and after use, are more helpful at getting into the nuance of that conversation. Um, and also, sometimes after hearing those messages of, like, the… from depressed teens, parents want to run right to their kids’ rooms and just take the phones away and delete everything. Don’t do that. Sometimes in hard times, especially, the phones can be, like, a big source of support, a way to find community. But it’s really helpful if we can help shift that off of social media networks and into other environments. Um, and really hard to delete a social network alone. If you’re doing it with a group of friends, way easier to do it, to better do it together. If you’re the only one doing it, kind of sucks. Everybody’s deleted it but me. Ah, how do I deal with that? Um, and, uh, some light at the end of the tunnel here. Um, “Where to start? In my personalized feed, there were things related to what I searched on Google and other apps. Sometimes, I need mental help. It personalized my feed to be depressing. TikTok was pushing me into further sadness. Those nights I stayed up with those depressing TikToks were some of the worst of my life. I don’t regret one bit. Deleting the app was the best thing I ever did for myself.” Teenagers who are doing this seem to be having positive responses with it. “I just wanted to say, I deleted Instagram back in June, then got it back for a day in August, deleted again. So I’ve been off for about five months. Was so much happier. This is really key. I didn’t realize what it was doing to me until I just barely got it back again and realized why I deleted it in the first place. So here I am, deleting it again.” It’s really hard to notice. It’s really hard to notice the impact this stuff has until we take that break. If this is going to be on YouTube, I recommend showing your kids this. These messages, especially, have these conversations because seeing other kids being like, “You know what? I didn’t recognize what it was doing until I tried, until I saw that,” can be really powerful. I find these messages cut through a lot of the noise and help us get to the meat of the conversation. If you have younger kids, I, like, delaying, for me, it would be as long as I possibly could of when social media comes into the picture. It’s tough because smartphones, social media, very tough to give one without the other. There’s something called “GAB phones” which kind of look like smartphones and have a lot of the functionality but not social media. Um, and then finally here, like, I think one of the best things we can do for our kids is help them win the race to know ourselves. There is no shortage of technology companies and external games and things that are trying to get to know your kids, um, the best they can, to sell them things and to grab and hold their attention. To help our kids have that self-awareness of all different forms and kinds, emotional mindfulness of, like, where are impulses coming from, where are desires coming from, why do we really want that, what is it, what is it really? To help them have that kind of skill set from as young of an age as possible. And a lot of that is SEO, and there’s a big industry of that. I think it’s so important to have the arsenal to fight against this persuasive technology machine. That’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ve got some more resources on the website, but I think we’ve given a lot here, and I will stop sharing my screen. And I have no idea if I’m over time, but I hope that I am not.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: I have no idea either, but thank you, Max. Um, that was a great presentation, and I really appreciate you also sharing the Wii. Um, you know, as a parent, I know it is really, really challenging to, you know, obviously, it’s great to delay if you can, and it’s great to, um, talk, and you should definitely talk to your child about all of these things. Um, but if their whole community is on it and you cut them off, that is very challenging because it is their social life. And in a COVID world, where kids really, you know, in teens, in particular, it’s developmentally normal, and they actually need that social interaction. Um, in a COVID world, by cutting them off, you may be cutting their only way to engage with peers.


[Max Stossel]: Absolutely, and that’s why it’s so, like, we confuse, like, “Well, social media, it’s socializing.” It’s like, well, if you’re looking at it, like, most of it is really not. So it’s like, okay, I definitely don’t want to take socializing away from my kid. Obviously, that’s not right, especially now. So how can I ensure that I’m giving that and giving that support and recognize that this environment that it’s happening in, and it is the default. We’ve all been kind of like, “Okay, this is how kids socialize now.” No, this is ridiculous. This is not socializing. And I think that’s the challenge for parents right now, where how can we shift, move the conversations away from these toxic environments so that they’re continually socializing, especially now in COVID, a lonely time, and to move it from that toxic room?


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Yeah, I really actually like that. Oh, Emily, hello. You’re on camera. So I will, um, let you go ahead and ask your excellent question. And, uh, Max, you can answer it, and Richard, if you want to weigh in as well. Um, as it has to do with education, we’d love to get your feedback too. Go ahead.


[Emily Churkin]: Great. Thank you. My name is Emily Churkin. I live in Seattle. I’m a mom, first. I have a nine and a 12-year-old. I’m a former middle school teacher, and I actually just started my own business as the screen time consultant, working with families and kids in schools about this very issue. So I’m, you know, many of you are inspiring to me. And hi, Chrissy. Um, and I actually, my question today could be for anybody, but I, I’m, as I work with parents, as I struggle as a parent with remote learning right now, I’m really curious and angry about the potential persuasive technology being used for remote learning. And I think what I find as a teacher and a parent is that remote learning does not look the same, even within a school, just teacher-dependent, school-dependent, district-dependent. And I’m just wondering if you can speak to that piece of it, like, how concerned should we be? What are the things that we can do as parents and advocates, um, to minimize persuasive tech in remote learning? And thank you all for your work.


[Max Stossel]: Um, yeah, also, I have to think at one point, I’m going to dip away from this and come back. So I’ll just say it first. Um, for me, like, I definitely have noticed we need teacher education on this as well because a lot of the ed tech industry uses some of these tactics and where it’s like, “Oh, you get the coins,” and the whole thing becomes about getting the coins or getting the reward that’s in the game. And then, is the learning really happening? And it requires taking this step back and thinking, like, “Okay, what are we doing here? What is the purpose of this edtech? What is the purpose of this program? Is it achieving that, or did they just get really good at hitting the buttons and doing the thing?” Um, and for me, that’s, like, the question that needs to be answered. And it feels really unfair because this generation is, like, the guinea pig. And right now, teachers are struggling. It is a really hard time. I know there’s a thing that can make this easier, and they’re doing it, and they’re kind of getting it. And I can’t keep my kids focused or resume. So, how do we deal with that? Like, it probably helps to have some flexibility right now. And, like, and I, there does appear to be preliminary research showing that, like, exposing at the younger ages to these reward mechanisms can make it harder to break free from them later in life. So that concerns me too. Um, it’s just like, I don’t have a good clean, “Here, do this,” but those are the things that I’m thinking about and the ways that I’m considering it. I’m curious, for sure, what you have to say as well.


[Dr. Richard Freed]: Max, that was great. Uh, I think I’m really concerned about the fact that gamified learning is using extrinsic rewards, which sounds, they look amazing for a week or two. Wow, it made our kid do this. But we have a lot of research that extrinsic rewards are actually something we don’t want to use because they actually rob us of our intrinsic motivation to actually learn. Um, it seems like a great idea, but the kid becomes, as Max says, depended upon the prize. And you actually, you know, I wasn’t like a super motivated kid when I was in school, but eventually, I found, like, “Wow, this history stuff is kind of interesting, and if I work really hard, I can actually do well in school.” Those are all intrinsic motivations if that work much better than, uh, than the little carrot or prize in the long term.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Thanks, Emily. That was a great question. Bye-bye. Bye. Um, I’m kind of interested, and this has always been, and, and you know, persuasive technology. I really like what Jaron Lanier says about how in the past, because the work that I’ve been working on in my prior career was on entertainment content, linear content, old content, you know, movies, stories, even books. Um, but the problem, you know, I mean, in that industry, you want to get eyeballs on screens, right? I mean, and ads and money drives it. So, in some way, isn’t this really about capitalism and the business model that drives all of media? If we have a different model, would it change things? If advertising to children, which is not the right thing to do in my opinion, and research shows it’s very hard for them to understand the difference between ads and, you know, and it’s even more insidious in social media, um, would things be different, Max?


[Max Stossel]: Um, I think so. I think that is a really keystone of a lot of this. I mean, especially with reforming social media itself. And we sometimes start to think of, well, like, you know, I don’t want to just pay for social media without the ads. What would that be like? And the inequality that creates, which is an important question to tackle as well. But, like, if social media, social media, social media, if it were actually thinking about me as, hey, how can I help, like, how can I help Max or how can I help a high schooler, like, find more meaningful experiences that he’ll later say are, like, were really valuable and important to him? How can I help him support those around him? How can I help him connect with people that he’s later said, like, “Wow, I’m really glad I connected with that person.” And using all the data to really be on our team that way. I pay for that product. And frankly, like, I would probably open up a non-profit to, like, be able to give that to people who couldn’t afford it. What an amazing service to use this plethora of data towards that. And so, like, I think I hope that’s the future, and I think that’s the way out. Um, we often, we are paying for edtech, and so I would encourage administrators and teachers to be like, okay, like, well, I don’t care how long they spent on this platform. I don’t care, like, how, like, it’s necessary, you know, it’s helpful to know, but not just, how exciting was it for them to use this thing? Let me be looking at the learning outcomes. Let me be looking at what, like, what they really gained out of this. I think we need to get smarter about our metrics and measuring because, as you say, although, like, so much of the industry is about time spent and grabbing time and attention, and who does that serve? Certainly not the students, certainly not the people using them.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: I mean, ironically, “The Social Dilemma,” you know, number one on Netflix, they are gaining this kind of, um, you know, influence through the eyeballs, and Netflix, the binge-worthy, you know, um, uh, platform is using these same kind of tricks. You know, it’s not just social media. Everybody in these in media, um, you know, this is they need to, they need to make money, and how do they make money, you know? And, and, um, by getting our kids and all of us, um, looking at their product. Criscilla, do you have anything, um, well, we have about one minute. So, Criscilla, I’m gonna give you, um, the opportunity to answer that because I think if you have any insight to add there, and then, of course, go into your presentation. Um, and let me give you an introduction as well. Dr. Criscilla Benford is a writer, educator, and communications consultant whose current project is “The Tech Between Us,” a book manuscript in progress that leverages her recent work in human-computer interaction, persuasive design, and theoretical neuroscience to help readers wishing to de-prioritize human-computer relationships and strengthen their relationships with self and others. That sounds like a much-needed, um, work that I would love to read. So, go ahead, Criscilla.


[Criscillia Benford]: Thank you, and uh, thank you, everyone, for, uh, for joining us here today. Um, you know, my background is, uh, in the humanities for, um, about 20 years. I am was a literature professor, teaching literature and humanities classes, rhetoric classes. And what motivated me to do that was, you know, some of the things that Max was talking about in his presentation, that it is so important that we know who we are, that we know our history, and that we’re able to live deliberately. And these are the things that I was trying to support students in, uh, accomplishing when I was teaching. And that became increasingly more difficult, and I realized I could probably do that work better outside of the academy at a certain point. But when I was in the academy, I studied, uh, the sociology of literary forms. And what that means is a little jargony word, just means, uh, that we were looking at narrative content, uh, and looking at, um, the material form that narrative content would take. And, um, looking at the relationship between the culture that gave rise to it at a particular moment, um, the business pressures that were on the artist, and, uh, and then the actual content itself. So that is how I started thinking about UX design and persuasive design. And I’m going to share the screen now and get into this presentation. Okay. So, um, here we are with, um, a quote from B.J. Fogg, who I guess you could consider the father of persuasive design. And in this quote, what he’s talking about is, um, a principle he calls the principle of kairos. And that comes from ancient rhetoric, which, uh, the term for the ancient Greeks was already a metaphor. Uh, they borrowed it from archery. And what it meant was, uh, the exact spot where an arrow had to go through in order to hit a target. So think about in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker has to send the proton torpedo through the thermal exhaust port and blow up the Death Star, you know, that’s the principle of kairos. Um, now, in persuasive technology, we think of it as being able to deliver the right message at the right time. So I want to start with that. And then let’s go back to Max. He was already talking about notifications. This is a screenshot from my own computer. Um, you can see that I was ignoring messages from some people on my iPhone. Um, now I want to talk about pick up something that Richard said, and Max talked about it a little bit, but we’ve got triggers here. So the notifications, the little red dots, when they’re like that, that’s an external trigger. And for me, like when I took that screenshot, I was actually um trying to make a slide for this presentation, and I felt in the zone, and I just, I didn’t care about those things. And, um, that’s kind of what happens with notifications. If you’re in a good mood, they are, they don’t have, um, quite the same hold. Now, through the conditioning, the slot machine effect, the variable rewards that Max was talking about, an external notification can become internalized. So let’s say that I was working on this presentation, and I was feeling frustrated, and I was thinking, like, oh, you know, I’m bored of this presentation, or I’m just, my slides are ugly or whatever, you know, just having some kind of negative emotion. I wouldn’t even need these notifications. I would just be thinking, you know what, I think I’m gonna look and see what’s on my phone. I’m gonna go, I’m gonna look on Instagram for a little bit. I’m gonna go to Pinterest. I’m gonna look at my news app. That’s me trying to get away from that negative feeling. That is me having internalized what once was an external thing arriving over the transom, and I looked at it. Now I myself am, I’ve become, you know, my own little trigger. Um, this is important, and I’m going to talk about that internalization as it comes to Fortnite. Now, Fortnite is a game that mystifies a lot of people because, in some ways, it’s kind of terrible. Like, if you’ve seen it, the graphics are, uh, not very sophisticated, the gameplay is not very sophisticated. It’s a battle royale, there’s lots of battle royale games, that’s not very original. And yet, people love it, especially young people, they love it. And why is that? Um, well, one of the reasons, uh, are the reasons that I’m going to talk about. And there are three that Fortnite is able to leverage our basic human needs. And one of them, that we’ve been talking about, it leverages our belongingness needs. So in Fortnite, you can meet your friends there, you don’t have to play the battle royale, you can go into it in different modes, or even if you are in battle royale, you can talk to your friends, you can do these things. Um, one of the other things about Fortnite is, um, because of the middleware that Epic Games has created, you can play Fortnite with people who have different consoles. So the amount of people who, um, can play Fortnite is much larger than with other games. The other thing about Fortnite is that it doesn’t require a very sophisticated system. So again, you’re expanding the potential of people who can play, and that is, that’s really great for making friends inside of the game. You can create a little friend list so that when, let’s just say, you are sitting around, you think, “I feel bored, I mean, I think I’m gonna go in Fortnite,” and you go in, and you can see who, uh, on your friend list is in the game, and you can go and you can join them, or you can invite them. So, uh, Fortnite is meeting belongingness needs. Fortnite, like other games, meets esteem needs. And this is where things can get a little tricky. And, um, I think Richard will probably talk more about this, Max, um, addressed it a little in his presentation too. But in Fortnite, you can be admired for these things that you buy. And, um, you know, we’ve got, you got the skins, you have the different, um, little emotes or dances. It is, they’re sort of tapping into our need for social comparison, our need to fit in. Um, the other thing here is that because Fortnite uses microtransactions, it makes it really easy to make these purchases. That’s another way that it’s leveraging, uh, these esteem needs. It’s also sort of, uh, the idea of having a really cool collection. Um, you can be admired for that. And then finally, Fortnite does leverage our self-actualization needs. But this, our need to fulfill our potential, but this is happening in the context of a game. And this is one of the difficulties with, um, virtual environments. They are, um, they are simpler versions of, uh, the real life of real life. And, uh, it can be easy to meet our needs or feel easy to meet our needs when we’re in the virtual environment. And I’m going to close just by talking about persuasive design in terms of three interlocking, uh, roles that a, um, platform designed using these, uh, tactics will play. So the first one is the tool, and that’s the thing that we are always thinking about. So you can think of Fortnite as a tool for social connection. You can also think of it as an entertainment tool. It is meeting that just kind of very mundane need. Um, now tools, when they are persuasive design, it’s very important if they’re going to work that they need to be able to do something that a human or another medium cannot do. So again, back to Fortnite, with all of the people that it can make, um, that it can make play Fortnite, um, are the people who, um, are can be potential players. So many people, um, that’s important. Fortnite can also give you location information about your friends that you could never ever ever get. Um, so that’s another thing that Fortnite can do, uh, as a tool that other humans in another medium cannot. Um, also, the way that it dispenses these virtual rewards and just gives this, you know, the dopamine rush, Fortnite, the play is very fast. So, um, those are some of the things that Fortnite can do. Um, another thing that a persuasive technology, if it’s going to be very persuasive, it needs to leverage its status as a symbolic and sensory medium. So again, think about Fortnite. It’s a very immersive environment. One of the things, if you play it, that’s kind of cool, you want to put your headphones on because the sound is mapped to the 3D environment to help with the gameplay. So you can see if someone’s going to sneak up on you. When you’re nearing one of the chests that has the rewards, it’ll start to make these lovely little noises, you’re like, “Oh, I’m close, okay.” So it is, uh, it’s an immersive environment. It, uh, that environment allows it to alter our perceptions of value. So again, these relatively worthless things, seeing value take on valuable take on an aura of luxury. One, because, like, some of the skins are available one season and they’re never available again. People who started playing Fortnite in 2017 have things the people who just came in during quarantine don’t have. All of this creates some, a bit of hostility within the Fortnite community. That’s something to look out for. Um, anyway, simulated, uh, environments don’t need to look anything like our real environment. They just need to create a sense of a total world. And then finally, this, uh, is what is most interesting to me, uh, as a researcher. Persuasive technology needs to play this social actor role. It needs to perform a social function. So, um, when it’s doing that, it can seem, it might want to seem like a person. So, uh, there’s an example that I use in another talk of a little robot called Boxy that is a little documentary filmmaking robot. It’s super cute, and that cuteness was designed into it so that people would want to tell it, answer the intimate questions that it asks. Um, so that’s, you know, an example of persuasive technology trying to look like a little thing in the world. But with Fortnite, what it’s really doing is just orchestrating social cues. It’s eliciting social responses. Um, it’s just providing a sense of social presence. And when those things work together, you’ve got technology that has charisma. And this is BJ Fogg’s term. When he first started thinking about these ideas, he called it charismatic computing. Anything about a person with charisma, you know, someone who’s got this compelling charm, uh, you become devoted to it. That’s the idea. Um, and so like I said, if you’ve got a platform that’s utilizing these techniques, you’re going to notice that it is orchestrating social dynamics. It might seem to cooperate with you, praise you. Um, it might leverage peer pressure or group polarization. Um, it will often have a language like Fortnite will have a language kind of young and, uh, you know, it’ll say something like, uh, you’re partying. I can’t, no, I can’t remember it. Anyways, it, it talks like a young person in its little messages. Um, it will play around with your psychological, uh, it can try to get a sense of what you like psychologically. Like, for instance, uh, Nordstrom is, uh, you know, the little shopping, when you go into the website, it’s a persuasive design technique that when I buy things, it says, uh, you know, “You have good taste.” It doesn’t, like, but, you know, and I look at that, “Yes, I do like these things.” You can know them, and they still kind of have a little effect. Uh, and then, you know, as I said with Boxy, sometimes you’ll have those physical things. So, um, the anthropomorphized the system. So I just wanted to give that sort of overview, kind of coming out of, um, UX design, of what are some of the features to look out for in persuasive design. And in terms of what you can do about it, the main thing is, uh, you have to take some slowing down and just spending some time, uh, in self-reflection and, um, asking yourself, you know, like, for instance, for me, like, when I, you know, think, you know, what, I think I’m just gonna look at Pinterest, and I go, “Wait, why? Why am I, why am I doing that?” And as I think Max talked about, it’s finding, thinking about these needs and finding non-uh, virtual ways, non-online ways, to have those needs met. That is what is key. And I’m going to go ahead and stop there.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: That was great! Those are definitely, actually, all everything you hit upon are things I actually also write about in my book about how the need to belong, and of course social comparison, which is on steroids. Um, all of these psychological mechanisms are at play in these media. But I’m going to go back a little bit to that issue about the underlying business model and capitalism. And we know that, you know, and I know you often talk with Commercial-Free Childhood, you know, we would like to protect this period of time, but it’s aged down with even, you know, in legacy media like selling to young kids. And they’re on these social media platforms, and some people say it gives them agency, and it does in a lot of ways too. Um, but the other thing is, you know, as adults, we don’t let, you know, we don’t give children the same kind of freedoms that they used to have before. With their, they can’t, we don’t say leave the house and run around and play. You know, my husband likes to always say, you know, as a kid in Missouri, he ran around with his bikes and didn’t come home till six. Adults don’t do that anymore for whatever reason, they don’t do that. And so if there aren’t any other options, you know, how do we change the underlying systems that are sort of making these media be one of the main options for these normal developmental needs for kids? You know, how do we create places for kids to go out, um, and for underserved communities? Yeah, um, you know, if you’ve got a lot of money, yeah, you can hire a babysitter and have them go do something, or you can put them in, you know, extracurricular activities. Um, how would you answer that? And then I have a question after that, um, from, from, uh, somebody who called in.


[Criscilla Benford]: Well, I’ll, uh, just start with the first part of your question about the business model and just linking it back to Fortnite. It’s important to remember that Fortnite is a freemium game, meaning that it’s available for free, but the point is to establish a foundation for future financial transactions. And in the industry, the phrase is “the more they stay, the more they’ll play.” And that’s because as you get familiar with the environment, as the microtransactions become more and more easier, second and second nature, you’re just going to start wanting to give as much money as you can. Um, so freemium games are more likely to be littered with these persuasive design tactics and others. So that’s just something to look out for if you’re trying to decide about games. Now, the larger question about making offline experiences more widely available, yes, this is, I think this is a collective action. Um, that it takes collective action. We do, I, I firmly believe we need to be supporting our zoos, our outdoor education, um, you know, places. One of the things that’s been happening during the pandemic is that those organizations that used to offer an opportunity for kids to go out and be in nature or to interact with animals, they have been hit by this. Schools are unable to take the kids to these environments, to these organizations. People are obviously having some difficulties with money, so they’re not donating. Um, so it’s important that we do that. The other thing that I’d say is it’s important that we demand of our universities that the computer science programs include ethics, that we do not let the humanities die, that when the people who are training to go into this industry, that they have this full sense of humans and what we need. And I think that’ll make a big difference.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: I completely agree, and, and, and I’m gonna hold that other question till the end. Um, but yes, absolutely, you know, I most of those, and it’s the same with Hollywood too, frankly. Most of the people going into these industries, at their, you know, a lot of them are young males, white, with no kids. So they aren’t thinking about children, you know. When I was in the industry, I’m not a male or white, but when I was in the industry, I wasn’t thinking about kids, you know. And so they don’t really, they need some either, you know, if they’re marketing to kids, they need some expertise around child development, and so they can sort of put themselves in kids’ shoes. And that, I think, is a very important factor. You know, once they have kids, they start thinking differently. But by then, you know, it’s often too late. So I’m gonna go over to Richard Freed. Thank you so much, Criscilla, that was wonderful. Um, Richard is a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of the book “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.” His two primary areas of focus are persuasive design and the high level of entertainment screen use by less advantaged children and its impact on their health. That’s exactly what we were just talking about. So he’s going to give a short note about persuasive design and what parents, schools, and healthcare can do.


[Dr. Richard Freed]: Thank you, Yalda, and thank you to Pam and everybody at Children and Screens for putting this all together, and welcome to everyone out there. These are strange times, and it’s nice to have you here. My name is Dr. Richard Freed. I am a psychologist in clinical practice, which means I’m every day working with families who are coming to me, who are struggling with all this. I also talk around the nation about this, I write about persuasive design, and I continue to do so. But my primary job, my day job, is families coming to me saying, “I’ve lost my child to such and such. My daughter is living in a room on her phone on social media. My son has disappeared to video games.” And the families I work with, I talk in Silicon Valley a lot, but I work outside of Silicon Valley with a much less advantaged population. And those parents are not aware of what’s happening. They haven’t heard of persuasive design. They are blaming themselves, saying, “I’ve lost my kid.” They’re blaming their kids, saying, “My kid must have some problem with self-control.” But what these parents don’t know, what a lot of Silicon Valley parents understand, is that embedded in these technologies are powerful technologies. And my job as a psychologist is to really say, “Yes, it’s industry, but it’s a merger with the profession of psychology.” And that’s what’s difficult for me because I’m a psychologist. It’s a profession, it’s a discipline to help kids, and here we have this powerful psychology being used to pull kids onto screens, and that has a lot of profound health effects for them. I’m going to share my screen, so I want to talk a little bit about what persuasive design is, these powerful psychology tricks hidden within the technologies our kids use every day. And as Max said, it’s really about taking these powerful Las Vegas technologies. If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas and you’re looking up and you’re saying, “What built those giant hotels?” 70% of gambling revenue is from these computerized slot machines, not blackjack. And so when the gambler comes in and they pull the handle or push the button, they’re playing a game. What’s gonna happen a lot is the wheels are gonna spin, and they’re looking for a bar, bar, bar, cherry, cherry, cherry. And a lot of times, what will happen is, you know, right below their winning window, they’ll see bar, bar, bar, and they’re like, “Ah, I almost had that.” What is that? That is a near-miss phenomenon, a near-miss effect. That’s purposefully built into that game to pull users on to, and it really exploits powerful Stone Age, where our DNA was formed during the Stone Age. Can you imagine being a hunter-gatherer and coming this close to bringing down the game animal that you needed to feed your family? Like, you would be at that. You would just stick with it. So, okay, so then our kids are playing Fortnite, and I’m in The Wall Street Journal talking about why more boys are really lost to video games. And I’m talking about why we’re losing a lot of boys. Girls play it too, but it’s especially powerful for boys. And when Fortnite is a battle royale, we’ve talked about one player against 99 others. So most of the time, you’re gonna get killed. But when you die, you see your health points pop up, or you see the health points pop up of yourself but also the person that killed you. And what it looks like is when they killed you is that they were just about ready to die themselves. So you’re like, “Ah.” So what is that? That is a near-miss phenomenon. That is the same technique that Vegas uses to pull users on, that develops compulsive behavior. And here it’s using, you know, what I see. What that leads to, kids in my practice, is kids setting their alarm, for boys, of about 11, setting their alarm to wake up at three in the morning and play when their parents don’t know it, and then falling asleep at school. And what’s wrong with my kid? And why is my kid failing school? What they don’t know is that near-miss phenomenon, and a hundred other different persuasive design techniques have really, you know, hundreds of them are used in all these technologies, are pulling kids on. And I think I’ve been asked a little bit just to mention a few of these. I’m gonna steal from Tristan Harris from the Center for Humane Technology. Other ones that are really powerful are the bottomless bowl phenomenon. When I was a kid, you watch a TV show, you know it’s clear that the TV show is over. You know, it’s time to go eat, it’s time to go play outside. Today, it’s a bottomless bowl. There is no end to social media scrolling, there is no end to YouTube videos, they keep going and going. And if you put soup before someone and you secretly fill up their bowl underneath what they’re eating, they’ll eat 70% more soup. We need markers to say, “It’s time to move on.” That’s why Vegas doesn’t have any windows in its casinos. We don’t want to have any external cues to tell you it’s time to go to bed or time to move on. Other ones are a social element. Today, it used to be that kids would meet friends at the park and they’d play softball. Kids don’t do that so much anymore. Today, the social element is, “We’re all gonna meet on Fortnite,” or “We’re all gonna meet on such and such game.” And that makes it really hard for parents to feel like they can set limits. But what I want to say, and we’ve really lost this, it’s great if kids have strong peer relationships, but far more important, even when kids are teens, is a relationship with their family. So a lot of parents are saying, “I want to let my kid disappear off to a back room and because they need to talk with their friends,” but they’ve lost any connection with family. And unfortunately, we have a generation of boys who are oftentimes living in a back room and gaming so much that they’ve lost touch, and they don’t go to college, and a lot of them are living at home. That’s what happens when you get this peer ethic. Today, 57% of college admissions are female, only 43% are boys. So if you sort of say, “I’m gonna have my son be just like all the other boys,” a lot of them aren’t going to college today. There are all these markers on social media, all these badges. They take real-world social interactions and they make them artificial, but they put badges on them, and that’s really powerful. If you are a kid and you say, “Oh, I have this many followers,” or “This many likes.” And lastly, all this is tested by psychologists and other behavioral scientists working with industry who, and this was mentioned in “The Social Dilemma,” this is Aresh Sharma and Paula Patilla who worked for Facebook, using that powerful A/B testing. The tech industry has endless resources that they can test one iteration versus another. And if you have scientists working to build these technologies and endless resources, they’re going to develop products that pull kids on and don’t let them go. So, what does that mean? What’s happening with this generation of kids? These persuasive designs are really powerful. They’re really pulling kids on, such that, per Common Sense Media, kids spend, the typical teens spend seven hours and 22 minutes in front of a screen. And today, childhood is finite. Where did that seven hours and 22 minutes come from in a child’s day? That came from sleep, that came from physical activity, that came from time spent with family, that came from being active. And that puts kids at risk. “The Social Dilemma” is a really amazing movie. One of the parts in there that I think really appeals to younger kids is there’s a girl of 11 named Isla in there who is pulled onto her phone and social media at the expense of her family. And that’s the two big effects of persuasive design, or what they do, are they pull kids away from the families that they need. That’s one. That’s a risk factor for depression when you put kids, like a whole bunch of 11-year-olds all together, and they sit there and they talk, oftentimes about cutting and suicidality, and “I’m so depressed,” and they lean on each other at the expense of their family for help. That puts our kids at risk. Secondly, as we see with Isla and “The Social Dilemma,” which is an amazing movie and I encourage everyone to see it, is that you’re pulled onto content where the online world, unfortunately, for a lot of our kids, is just not a very nice one. Kids do not say nice things to each other, and kids are very sensitive to what’s said. So we have this combination of displaced family, problem content, and I see it contributing to a generation of depressed girls in my practice, for example. When kids are coming out of a psychiatric hospital, their discharge instructions now, especially for girls, will say, “You need to be off your phone and off social media and spending time with your family.” It is now increasingly recognized as a really important concern because my families are less understanding of persuasive design. It compelled me to write about that. I wrote this article, “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids,” which has more than a half million views, and it really is talking about this merger of industry and psychology and how these powerful tricks that are unbeknownst to parents are really changing our kids’ lives. And I really, when I call out industry or I call out psychology and say, “This is unethical, you can’t do this,” as a psychologist, as a behavioral scientist, to manipulate kids, to pull them on when we know it has negative health effects. And so myself and Dr. Megan Owens at Penn State, working together with the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, we reached out to the American Psychological Association with a letter signed by more than 200 psychologists and other experts, people like Jean Twenge, Sherry Turkle, Mary Pipher, and we said, “Hey, we can’t have psychologists or behavioral scientists using psychology to work against children, to be pulling them onto screens when we know it has negative health effects.” And so how did that go over? Essentially, the APA said, “Thanks, and we’re going to forward it to committee,” and essentially nothing has happened. So what this means is right now, parents are on our own, and a lot of parents just don’t know what is happening. Essentially, what this is, it’s just not a fair fight. We can’t expect children to be able to defend themselves against the world’s most powerful industry, employing the world’s best and brightest behavioral scientists, and we haven’t disclosed to parents that these tricks are being used. It’s just overwhelming for kids. And “The Social Dilemma,” you see these former tech execs who are saying, as we’ve talked about, Criscilla, Max, Yalda, pushing back the age when kids get devices because they just really are unable to fathom and understand. I can talk till I’m blue in the face with kids in my practice about how they need to spend less time on this stuff, and maybe one, two, three percent get it. The rest are just like, “When can I get on Fortnite again?” So how can we help? How can we help families? What can we do to protect kids? As we saw in “The Social Dilemma,” a lot of those tech execs are really taking firm action and understanding that they need to step up for their kids, just as parents have always done. We can be the parents. The most effective type of parenting is called authoritative parenting, when you actually are involved with your kid and you set limits on them. So Bill and Melinda Gates, Steve Jobs, Tony Fadell, who’s really the father of the iPad and largely the iPhone, they are all setting powerful limits on their own kids’ tech. And as we see in a New York Times article where I am talking about the difference between the families I see that are less advantaged versus families in Silicon Valley, what are Silicon Valley parents doing? They’re really emphasizing, they’re going old school. They’re emphasizing print books and old-school toys for kids. They’re pushing back the age when kids get smartphones and other gadgets. They understand how powerful games are, especially to boys. When we look at addiction rates, Dr. Douglas Gentile wrote about this. We see 13% of game-addicted kids are those that game, are boys, and only about 3% are girls. Boys get hammered by games, girls more get taken by social media. We’re gonna set strong gadget limits on weekdays. We’re gonna have parents being mindful of their own media habits, as Max really pointed out. And this is a big one: no screens in the bedroom. Seems normal today, “Oh, just let my kid screens.” Even phones should be kept in the kitchen when kids get those devices. Does persuasive design belong in schools? My kids go to public school. It is sad and tragic to me that public schools today are allowing kids to be on smartphones during the school day, whereas private schools don’t. Private schools understand, “Wow, this hurts kids’ learning. This distracts kids. Why would I want to have the tech industry pulling kids away from learning when they’re supposed to be at school?” So they don’t have kids be away for the day. That’s how it should be. Private schools are doing that. Public schools really need to step up. There’s an organization called Wait Until 8th, which is involved with a lot of schools. I encourage families to look to that. That is families getting together and saying, “Let’s limit, let’s all work together at a kid’s school and set that limit together,” because it’s so hard to do this alone. You want to do this as a community. You don’t want to have your one kid without the phone. They should all be talking with each other, and not when you have the one kid without the phone. It’s so tragic and sad to have them walk up and talk, as they should be at school, and they’re all on their devices, quiet. So this all should be done together, and I consider or look to wait until 8th, and that’s, you can just find them easily. And also, we’ve talked about ed tech. I understand, with respect to COVID, we need to have kids have that access to technology, but beyond that, the schools that are most successful across the world limit kids’ use of technology. Schools in Asia, those kids regularly beat us on the PISA test. Those kids have limited uses of technology, which really, in education, has not been shown to be really effective. A lot of kids, what they need, and a lot of parents and teachers are begging for, is they need books and workbooks. When you walk in and your kids on a good math book, you know they’re doing math. When you look at them and all you see is the back of a computer, you have no idea where they’re at. And so many kids, like my kids are in distance learning, if you talk, and they’ll say, “And all the kids in my practice, my own kids too,” but like kids are, they just sit there and they game while they’re on screens, they’re supposed to be. And teachers are regularly calling out kids to say, “You’re spending your whole class time gaming.” Healthcare should step up, really talk with families right at the beginning about pushing back, prevention. And I just want to wrap up and say, great, we’re talking about what Silicon Valley parents can do. Silicon Valley is a remarkable place, but unfortunately, right now, it’s a bubble. It’s a lot of parents who understand this and a lot of parents who can send their kids outside to these lovely safe parks, and you go ride a bike, and there are lots of after-school activities. The kids that I’m working with don’t have those opportunities. Kids living in poverty, they’d go to an after-school program if it was there for them. Black kids just would go to these after-school programs if we had them, but we cut those. I would suggest going what Kevin Durant, former warrior, takes his millions of dollars and he’s investing into the community and providing other opportunities, which by default gets kids off of their devices. Just want to wrap up. This is my book, “Wired Child.” But other than that, I want to just say all kids deserve the opportunity to live a life, and you see this in “The Social Dilemma,” away from being by the puppeteer of industry and psychology, directing them around. They deserve to be able to have a childhood free of persuasive design. Thank you.


[Yalda Uhls]:Richard, thank you so much! You’re so passionate about this, and I really appreciate, in particular, your attention to underserved communities. Um, I gotta ask you, do you have stock in “The Social Dilemma”? I think you mentioned it six times. Um, but yes, um, I’m glad that you appreciate and that film really um highlights these issues. Um, you know, again though, I think that what you um, were highlighting, particularly in the end, and as a research psychologist in child development, I feel for the clinical people and the doctors who see patients who come to them when they have issues, and then you feel those issues. Um, in my work, we look at sort of a broader swath of young people, and you know, some kids certainly are suffering, and those kids really, really need help. But there’s a lot of kids that aren’t, and unfortunately, those are often the, oh, you know, the kids that come from financial means, you know, that are able to have choices. So, I do think it’s really important to highlight the underserved communities and giving them options and educating parents, and helping them learn. A lot of them are immigrants too, I’m sure in your practice too, and they don’t really understand, sort of, they think their kids are the tech experts. So, um, let’s go ahead, is Lisa gonna be on to ask her question?


[Lisa Cline]: Thank you so much. Um, this is also very interesting, and I know that there are a lot of experts here, and at home, we have a lot of experts. I’m a parent, um, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of DC. We are in a very big school district, 17th in the nation, um, 166,000 kids, and I chair a committee called Safe Technology, and we are parents and lawyers and formidable, I will say that. We have made some very nice headway with our school district, but I really do feel like the buck stops with the school district. They are usurping a lot of parents at home who have put forth all these wonderful mechanisms that we’ve been talking about today, only for the kids to go off to school and the teacher, real example from last week, my son’s teacher said, “Do a paper about TikTok or Fortnite, you get your choice.” Now, for a family like us, um, that creates dinner conversation about why can’t I, like everybody else, have those things, and now I can’t do my work, and reaching out to the teacher and blah, blah, blah. So, at what point do you folks feel like the educational community will start recognizing the red flags around persuasive design? We have, um, you know, a portal on our website, and our Chief Technology Officer will vet out the different edtech apps that are allowable in the district. There are 140 of them, I guess 44. Um, but that only screens them for privacy issues. It has nothing to do with the merit of academic enhancement. Um, so I wonder if you all feel like there will be a regulator that comes in at some point and says, um, not okay, scores are dropping, reading scores are dropping, um, where are the books? That’s my question.


[Dr. Richard Freed]: I can speak to that if that’s okay. Yeah, so where I see the value of people really speaking up is especially with respect to edtech, is teachers are feeling this, and I think a lot of this comes down from a very high level, but on the ground, teachers really understand what works for students. And I think they are really saying, “Do kids need another screen?” I want teachers to work together. I think I want teachers to understand the end game for a lot of this edtech is to push them to the side, to diminish their role as teachers, to have them kind of be like, uh, just an assistant. And that really means, uh, we need, supposedly, we’re gonna get fewer teachers, uh, we’re gonna pay them less. I’m really surprised that teacher unions, I think they need to come together and say, “This is, this is not, you know, our kids don’t need more screens. They’re already living on screens.” I, um, you know, I, I know what’s helpful for kids. You see this in a lot of high-end private schools. You see powerful teacher communities. You know, amazing teachers hired for their teaching ability, and they’re having, and that’s how the school is formed around. It’s formed around these great teachers who have taught for a long period of time, small classroom sizes, paying for, getting towards quality teachers, investing towards moving a lot of, there’s only a finite amount of money that can go towards, uh, schools. There’s a powerful interest wanting to take that away from teachers and put that into machines. And I think a lot of, sure, I think parent communities need to step up, and I think you are, Lisa, and I think I want to see teachers understand the end game that they are really being pushed to the side, and that’s not okay.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Max, do you have anything to add? Oh, Crissy, does? Go ahead.


[Criscilla Benford]: Um, I just wanted to, um, agree with Lisa that you were talking about the role that the district is playing and the school, and I think that it is very important the kind of work that you’re doing. Um, parents need to go to the school, go to the district, uh, go to governors who are also making deals with top-down edtech companies, and we need to say, “We do not want this.” Also, right now, with everything that’s going on in the world, it is challenging to think of low-tech ways to connect children to learning opportunities. And this is something that we did try to address at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and so we created a low-tech remote pedagogy document that, um, if you’re a teacher out there, I recommend that you look at. If you’re a parent, to look at it and take it to your principal, to your district. We also have some other materials there that can help you with the kind of advocacy work that Lisa is talking about because it’s very important. Thank you. Thank you, Chrissy. We’re going to move on to our next question so we have enough time for, um, final thoughts and then wrap up. Um, Michelle, um, if we can see you, that’d be great. Hello, Michelle. Welcome. Um, please go ahead and ask your question.


[Michelle Leccese]: So, my name is Michelle. I am here in San Pedro, California, and I have a BA in Psych and a master’s in Psych at Pepperdine University. So, I’m hoping to go into researching this into a PhD program. Um, in the case of media in the form of online interactive games, how would you say that the persuasive strategies of competitive and cooperative social feedback impact the development of adolescent social behavior? So, for example, I’m actually, it’s very interesting you guys talked about Fortnite, but the current online phenomenon of Among Us, in which players both work together on tasks while attempting to eliminate impostors from actual crewmates, has on adolescent social development, especially in this time of great isolation due to COVID-19.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Yeah, and we already, yeah, COVID-19 really sort of has changed things. Max, do you have something to say about that, and then maybe we can go to Crissy since she talks about Fortnite?


[Max Stossel]: Um, is the question, like, is there a question of, like, how within these games, what is it to watch out for? Is the question, what is, we should be researching within these games? Can you clarify us a little bit as to what you’re looking for?


[Michelle Leccese]: It’s more so, um, we, as digital natives myself, someone who’s very into the gaming community, what would you say are the impacts that these games, I guess, may more so provide? We’ve been talking a lot about what to watch out for, but what can these games provide for these kids right now in this isolation?


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Yeah, and what can we encourage tech companies, sort of, you know, and that’s what we do at the center, is how can we also encourage them, in a way, to develop the things that are actually helpful?


[Max Stossel]: Sure. I mean, I was a gamer growing up. Um, I would, and I would go on 18-hour Halo benders, and, like, for me, like, and I think, like, there’s immense amounts of, like, strategy development and, like, in some ways, it’s high-speed chess that’s happening, and I think that can be really valuable. I think it’s just, it’s really tough. The gaming companies are better than anybody at developing these persuasive technology tactics. Like, you have, I’ve seen videos of these Epic Games developers who make Fortnite talking about the variable rewards that are inside, how every kill, every shooting game, every shot is kind of a slot machine pull, in the sense that, like, did I get the kill? Did I get the kill? Like, there’s so many little things baked into these games. And so, it’s hard for me. The answer is, like, it’s just limits with gaming. It’s, can we be aware of what we’re missing out on? Like, what was I not doing in my 18-hour Halo bender? Can we talk about this as groups and recognize, like, timers and help to actually get off because it’s so engaging? And again, that question of, like, how does this make you feel? What are you gaining from this? Like, what are you learning from this? How is this improving you? Because it can be very easy to just get lost in it. And also, like, the first hour of Halo, I loved. The next 17, I was mostly just in a fit of rage, trying to get to the next level. Like, I don’t know if that resonates for you, but, like, for me, it’s the beginning of it is there’s value, and then I’m just caught in the thing, and how can we separate that value from the addictiveness property?


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]:And I would say, like, look at Max. Clearly, he turned out okay, right? There is a lot of research on video gaming that shows there’s a lot of STEM learning, spatial learning, mental rotation. I have a son who I was very worried was addicted. Um, I ended up, and I know you guys recommend this, having him create his own family media agreement. And I told him the things I was worried about. I said, “I’m worried about self-regulation, I’m worried about sleep, I’m worried about you doing homework. You tell me how you’re gonna get off, um, and then I’ll give you extra time on the weekend or when you, you know, I’ll give you a reward for the right behavior, rather than being, ‘I’m gonna blame you and shame you,’ and, and be the person that has to always, um, be in charge of taking it away from you. I want you to learn to self-regulate.” And, you know, my kids turned out so far, knock on wood, you know, he’s probably supplying MIT and has a good shot to get in. So, um, the gaming didn’t necessarily impact him negatively. It really is about knowing your kid. And there are those kids who do get addicted, and there are those kids who really need help. But there are a lot of kids that learn great things and turn out okay. Chrissy, and then we’re gonna have to wrap it up and, um, have each of you have one minute to, um, speak.


[Criscilla Benford]: It’s also, um, I love what Yalda and Max were saying. But it’s also about knowing the game. Uh, not all the games are the same. And so, Fortnite and the freemium games are, um, you know, as I said, the freemium games are most likely to, there’s, it’s a game technically, it’s a game, but, um, it’s the persuasive design tactics that it uses are mostly associated with gamification, which is really the application of the most superficial aspects of gameplay into a context that is often not that interesting. Um, you know, so edtech is a great example. But there are games, and one of the things that I think it’s important when we talk about games and think about, for instance, you know, um, I’d say my generation, somebody older, the games were different. Uh, networked games can, um, do they can perform different social facilitation effects. They can, um, the simulations that they can do in terms of the social aspect of persuasive design are different. But there are games that are, um, that are really interested in what a game is. In, in a lot of ways, a game is something like a narrative. Our narrative is trying to create this experience of narrativity. A game, uh, at its best, so I’m not talking about the Fortnites of the world, um, is creating this ludic experience, this way of interacting with an environment that can create some emotional effects and a way to think about the world a little differently. Those games, it’s worth, if you’ve got a kid who’s really interested in a game, to ask them about that and specifically ask them about the game itself, like, what is it, you know? Is it a multiplayer game? Is it a single-player game? Does it have raids? This is a thing that, um, when parents say, like, you know, “Hey, get off your game,” hey, if your kid’s in the middle of a raid and you just say, “Get off,” you’ve killed everyone in their team and you’ve created some social problems for them. So it’s very important to talk to the kid about the game as you’re trying to make these rules.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Okay, great, great answer. Totally agree. So, and we’ve talked a lot about parents. We’ve had a few people ask about government legislation. So, I’m going to wrap this up into my final question. Um, which each of you get one minute, um, or less, because it’s 10:24. When I was growing up, my parents only let me watch one hour of TV a week. Then I spent my entire life obsessed with media. So, it can backfire, sort of saying, “No, don’t have any.” And adults always freak out about media, you know? They used to freak out about the book. How is this time and space different than other moral panics around media? And what’s the one thing you would say about the role for government legislation around this? I’m going to start with Max, and, um, then do Richard and end with Chrissy.


[Max Stossel]: So, I’ve actually, I mean, for a while, I had been saying, like, “Look, I love ice cream. And if,” and, like, “It’s great now and then. And if I were to carry around ice cream in my pocket 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if there were engineers on the other side of the ice cream updating the ice cream every day to make it more personally delicious for me, and I had to go inside a jar of ice cream to talk to my friends and do my work, I’d have an ice cream problem.” Um, but I actually think, like, of all of those, like, the, the having to talk to your friends and do your work inside and the 24/7, this are what makes it different for me. That just, like, the amount. And in some ways, it’s not different, like, “Oh, it’s, this is similar to those panics.” And you pour so much gasoline on something, it’s just, it’s a new product, it’s just a new problem. There’s a new set of challenges that we have to face with it. And so, like, I really think the 24/7 nature, and that it contains very real aspects of our work lives and our social lives, makes this just a new problem. And government regulation, I’m like, I’m scared. Like, I’m scared of being like, “Ah, government, let’s just have government.” Like, “Oh, God, no.” These are the same senators who are asking these really stupid questions to Mark Zuckerberg on the stand, who don’t understand this at all, is that we want regulating these things. Um, but I does feel like we need some kind of protections, especially for kids, um, in this world. And so, I think there’s, there’s room there to work with.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: I wish they would fix the, I didn’t answer that question. The underlying issues like inequality and giving kids options in underserved communities. Um, many of these issues, uh, Richard?


[Dr. Richard Freed]: One minute sounds good. I understand there are exceptions, Yalda, Max, uh, with respect to, you know, oh, kids can use this technology, but my guess is Max doesn’t use a ton now, and Yalda, your kid does not. But the population-based, we need to look at the reality and not skip past the fact that the typical kid spends seven hours and 20 minutes on a screen entertainment screen. Less advantaged kids, kids of color spending a whole bunch more. There’s broad population-based effects that we need to address: obesity, kids not doing well in school, kids getting depressed. Those things, I think we should focus on.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Great job staying under a minute, Chrissy, and then we’re turning it over to Pamela. One minute.


[Criscilla Benford]: So, uh, you know, one, as a person who studied the novel, and I, I’ve always been amused by, uh, you know, the kinds of articles that were written about how terrible the novel was. But what makes the technology interactive, networked communications technology, that’s really what we’re talking about, and Fortnite is a game, but it’s also allowing these social facilitation effects. It is that because it permits the algorithmic intelligence that amplifies the effect of persuasive design. And that’s why it’s so hard, as Richard said, it’s not a fair fight. Um, we, and so when I think about what we need to do collectively, I’m very inspired by the age-appropriate design code in the UK. And we, at the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, are going to be working on trying to do something like that.


[Dr. Yalda Uhls]: Oh, that’s fabulous. Yeah, the one thing I would say is that, you know, reading, it takes a long time to learn how to read, and many people don’t even master it. Um, technology, you know, we know the baby can do the iPad, so it’s just so intuitive. They can start from birth. Um, so thank you all. You’ve been amazing. I’ve really appreciated your perspective and a little bit of my pushback, um, your answers to that as well. And I’m gonna turn it over to Pamela, who’s the reason we’re all here. Thank you for allowing me to moderate and allowing all of us to, um, hopefully educate your audience.


[Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra]: Thank you, Yalda, Richard, Chrissy, and Max for an enlightening and informative conversation. And thank you to our attendees for your participation and wonderful questions. We hope that you can use what you’ve learned today to promote healthy device use in your family. To continue learning about this topic, be sure to visit our website, where we’ll post additional insights in the coming days. We’ll also be posting a YouTube video of today’s workshop, which we encourage you to share with your fellow parents, clinicians, teachers, researchers, and friends. For more from Children’s Screens, please follow us on social media at the accounts shown on your screen. Our discussions about digital media use and children’s well-being will continue throughout the rest of the year. Next Wednesday, October 14th, at noon EDT, we will discuss how to optimize virtual learning in kids with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Panelists will describe what we currently know about the relationship between screens and autism and will summarize best practices for managing digital media use during this time. Two weeks later, on October 28th, our workshop will explore the relationship between screen use and healthy eyes. When you leave the workshop, you will see a link to a short survey. Please click on the link and let us know what you thought of today’s webinar. Be well.